On February 23rd, a pair of pandas named Xing Hui and Hao Hao arrived in Belgium to much pomp and circumstance, including a visit from the Belgian Prime Minister. The pair have been “loaned” (really “rented” since Belgium is paying around $1 million per year to China for them) for 15 years. This is the latest “panda diplomacy” move by China which uses panda exchanges as a way of cementing relationships with diplomatic and trading partners. It all started with a gift to the Soviet Union in 1957, but the most famous panda “gift” was Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing loaned to the US when President Richard Nixon visited in 1972.
What many people don’t know is that the pandas given to the US in 1972 were actually a counter-gift: the pandas were gifted as a response to a US offer of a pair of muskoxen.
In preparation for Nixon’s visit to China, the US delegation decided to take a pair of muskoxen as a major gift. It seems that China had expressed interest in getting muskoxen from North America for display in the Peking zoo. To oblige, the US arranged to donate a pair of muskoxen named Milton and Matilda who were living at the San Francisco zoo. Milton and Matilda had been born at the zoo and were believed to be the only ones born in captivity in the US (their parents had been imported from a Canadian game farm in 1965).
According to a news report on 22 February 1972, during a dinner in China, Lin Yu-hua, curator of the Peking Zoo, told First Lady Pat Nixon that the Chinese were so pleased that the US was sending the muskoxen that China would offer them two pandas.
On the US side, it was unclear which zoo would get the pandas. A number of zoos appeared to be contenders, including San Francisco which had provided the muskoxen for the exchange. In the end, the pandas went to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., much to the disappointment of the other zoos with claims on them.
Milton and Matilda arrived in China in early April 1972, a week before the pandas reached the US. But things started off on the wrong foot. News reports from the end of April claimed that the muskoxen had started to loose their hair because of a skin disease and that the Chinese public was extremely disappointed. After all, muskoxen are known for their long wooly coat. Luckily by August, the rash had been cured–according to the zoo keeper Ou Wang Kan after bathing several times in Chinese herbal medicine.
In spite of the initial recovery, the muskoxen did not last long. Milton died 20 February 1975 after swallowing a sharp object that punctured his stomach. I’m not sure what happened to Matilda, but by 1980, she too had died. In 1980, Helen Miller, a widow from Georgia, decided to take up a one-woman crusade to get muskoxen back in China. She successfully arranged for a pair of muskox to be donated by the University of Alaska, Koyuk and Tanana, who arrived in Beijing on 21 March 1988.
Now when you read about the cute and cuddly black and white pandas flying around the globe in “panda diplomacy”, you’ll know that shaggy brown muskoxen have been part of the same story.
And if you want to buy me a gift some time, how about sending me a used copy of the children’s book Milton and Matilda: The Muskoxen who went to China? I’m sure my daughters would love it. And I would too.